Video: The Hamburg Inn faces new future with new owner

Challenge for new owner: Keeping that 'certain magic'

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IOWA CITY — After nearly 70 years in the Panther family, Iowa City’s iconic Hamburg Inn No. 2 has changed ownership.

New owner Michael Lee, a University of Iowa graduate and native of China, said he has big plans for the little eatery, but none of which involve changing the staff, menu or charm of the place most Iowa Citians simply call The Hamburg.

But how did a small local diner, with cramped tables and walls covered in old photos and faded newspaper articles, become a destination for international travelers and presidential candidates?

Former owner Dave Panther said there’s not a science behind it — the Hamburg is simply a welcoming place.

“There’s a communal atmosphere here,” Panther said. “We’ve done well in connecting with a lot of different segments of society. Somebody who has next to no money may be sitting next to somebody that may have millions, and they’re ordering the same thing.”

Bacon and eggs

The first Hamburg Inn was opened in 1935 on Iowa Avenue by Panther’s uncles, Joe and Adrian.

In 1948, Panther’s parents — Fritz and Fran — moved to town and purchased Mrs. Van’s Restaurant at 214 N. Linn St. It was renamed Hamburg Inn No. 2.

Born the same year Hamburg Inn No. 2 opened, Panther recalls a menu that didn’t yet boast current favorites such as pie shakes or its many omelets.

“When my folks started, it was a one-page menu, it was pretty much bacon and eggs and hamburgers and french fries,” Panther said. “Nobody had heard of a wrap back then. Well, nobody had heard of an omelet back then, either.”

A Hamburg Inn No. 3 once operated on Center Point Road in Cedar Rapids. The Panthers also opened Big Ten Inn on Riverside Drive and the Airport Inn next to the Iowa City Municipal Airport. But by the late-1970s, the three eateries — and the original Hamburg Inn — had closed.

Only Hamburg Inn No. 2 remained, with Panther taking over ownership in 1979.

He began adding to Hamburg’s menu options in the ’70s, starting with omelets, and the offerings continued to adapt to demand.

Hamburg’s menu is one thing, but many will say the atmosphere is just as memorable.

Longtime Iowa City resident Gary Sanders said neither the look or the feel of Hamburg has changed much since he was a waiter there from 1979 to 1981.

“Any change has been superficial, it’s still got the same feel to it,” Sanders said. “It’s a down-home, welcoming place. It doesn’t matter if you’re a student with no money or a businessman, everybody is welcome there and you can feel comfortable.”

Coffee Beans

It was the menu and charm of the Hamburg that kept Iowa Citians coming back, but it was the political visitors that put the small eatery on the international map.

The first was former U.S. President Ronald Reagan, who stopped in at the Hamburg in 1992. More than a decade later, in 2003, former president Bill Clinton visited the restaurant.

It was then that Panther decided to create an unofficial caucus — inspired by a pinto bean caucus held by a restaurant in southwestern America — to preview the 2004 Iowa caucuses. Panther began reaching out to candidates and their campaigns to solicit visits.

The Coffee Bean Caucus was born, and soon enough the Hamburg was being mentioned in the national and international media as presidential candidates and celebrities alike stopped by to talk politics and drop a coffee bean into a Mason jar.

“That’s what makes it so interesting. We are trying to present an opportunity for the voters in Iowa to meet these people in a grass-roots setting, and what could be better than a small, family-owned business?” Panther said.

The spotlight continued to grow brighter. In 2005, “The West Wing’s” episode 13 — titled “King Corn” — mentioned the Iowa City diner and its coffee bean caucus.

“In 2008, we had a lot of people contacting us first,” Panther said. “I call it the gift that keeps on giving, and it has put us on the map locally, statewide, regionwide, nationwide and also worldwide.”

Seth Dudley, Hamburg’s general manager, said in the week leading up to the 2016 caucuses alone, he met journalists from Portugal, Mexico, Japan and Germany.

“They had flown all the way to Iowa City and came here just to cover the Iowa caucuses. You get to meet people from all over the world,” Dudley said. “At first you get a little start struck and it can be a little overwhelming because there’s so much going on. After you do a few, it’s just another day at the office.”

The Coffee Bean Caucus has been going strong for more than a decade and the photos of politicians and celebrities blanketing Hamburg’s walls show just how big it has become.

“We’ll have visitors come in and walk through the restaurant looking at the photos lining the wall. They say, ‘This is where all the presidents come,’” Panther said with a smile.

Eggs Benedict

It was a few months ago that Michael Lee, a 1968 University of Iowa graduate, traveled to Iowa City to meet some acquaintances. During his visit, he stopped at the Hamburg following a friend’s suggestion and ordered the eggs Benedict.

Lee said it was the best he’d ever had.

“I do not want to miss this great restaurant when I go back to Shanghai,” Lee said.

Lee’s visit coincided with Panther’s plans to seek a buyer for the restaurant, and the two hit it off right away.

“I thought that whoever would buy this, it would be silly for them to come in and change it because if they wanted to change it, they could probably start their own restaurant and do whatever they want rather than come in an change a concept that has worked for over 80 years, so that was important. Michael had assured me he was interested in Hamburg Inn because it was Hamburg Inn and not coming in here to mess up an icon,” he said.

Lee, who is returning this weekend to Shanghai after taking over ownership last week, said he’s already been asked many times what he planned to change.

“I met a taxi driver who took me from the hotel to here,” Lee said, sitting at the restaurant. “He asked me the question, ‘You’re not going to change anything there, are you?’ I said, ‘No,’ bluntly. Why should I?”

Lee did say if he does alter anything at the local eatery, it might include adding outdoor sidewalk seating or maybe a patio out back. After that, his ambitions become much more grand, with hopes of adding additional restaurant locations — as near as Cedar Rapids to as far away as his home country of China.

Lee, chief executive officer of Academic Studies Abroad, a Shanghai-based organization that fosters cultural and educational exchanges between the United States and China and Taiwan, said he is exploring the possibility of adding locations with the support of an immigrant investor program.

Administered by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the employment-based immigration program provides green-card eligibility for entrepreneurs who make a necessary investment in a commercial U.S. enterprise and plan to create or preserve 10 permanent jobs for U.S. workers, according to the USCIS website.

The program was created in 1990 to stimulate the economy through job creation and capital investments from foreign investors.

Tying such a program to Hamburg allows for potential investment in those new restaurant locations, while providing more education opportunities for international students who require green cards for lawful residence to major in certain programs, Lee said.

“I want to help my alma mater, the University of Iowa, to have outstanding students study in medical school and other fields international students cannot be normally accepted into,” Lee said.

Lee described it as a win-win, with investors providing funding to help support the original Hamburg Inn No. 2 and any future locations, while also providing more education opportunities to international students.

“One stone, two birds,” Lee said.

Lee’s plans are grand, but for general manager Dudley, it’s what Lee doesn’t plan to do — namely change the Hamburg — that he finds most appealing.

“There’s a reason this place still goes strong after 68 years, there’s something special about this place. A certain magic to the Hamburg Inn and if you mess with it too much it will lose that magic, it will lose its character — the charm that really draws people back decade after decade,” Dudley said. “It’s one of those things, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

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